Monday, December 11, 2017

Are We Microagressors?

I'm fascinated by this blog, which suggests many of us are guilty of "microagression." (Here are some less ambiguous forms, but I'm going to focus on the first piece.) According to the blog, when we do things like tell students to take down their hoods, remove their hats, restrict their language, or even wake them up we may be infringing on their culture. I'm going to look at these things one at a time.

When I first started teaching, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had no concept about hats being bad, good or anything. However, a supervisor told me that students shouldn't wear hats in class. It appeared if they did, I would get in trouble. I am not fond of extra trouble, so I enforced this policy. Over the years, it's appeared silly sometimes. It's especially ridiculous in the halls, where I see deans tell kids to remove their hats. Inevitably, they turn the corner and replace them. I say nothing about hats in the hall.

In the classroom, there are reasons other than social grace for discouraging hats. I don't want students hiding from me, and anything that covers their faces facilitates this. Hoods are worse in that respect. It's pretty easy to hide your earbuds in a hood. Fascinating though we may fancy ourselves, a lot of teenagers would rather hear music than us.

You could argue that workplaces don't allow hats or hoods, and therefore we shouldn't either. Of course, some do. A lot of tech firms foster informal workplaces. In fact, in New York City at least, there is no dress code for teachers. Nonetheless, I don't allow students to wear hats or hoods in my classroom. I make exceptions for religious garments, and I'd make an exception for a kid who was undergoing chemo. Maybe there are other exceptions, and when they happen, I'll know. Generally, though, if someone's going to get into trouble for a hat, it's not gonna be me.

Clothing sends a message. I was stuck teaching in moldy trailers for about twelve years. I'd always dressed in khakis and collared shirts, but when they dumped me in the trailers I began wearing suits and ties. This was to contrast with the crumbling walls and floors Mayor Bloomberg had given my students. Bloomberg's suit and tie couldn't compensate for his moral bankruptcy, but I hoped to send a different message to my students from me, at least.

I'm not that conflicted about language. I use what's considered bad language in certain situations. I almost never use it on this space. I'm not persuaded it's acceptable in the classroom. It's certainly not acceptable in mine. I don't write up kids who use bad language. I talk to them, and they generally understand not to use that language in class. I don't let them use racist, bigoted or homophobic epithets either, and I don't let them go unchallenged. In general, most sensible people adjust their language to fit different audiences and situations, and I hope to instill that in my students.

All in all, maybe I'm culturally insensitive. I don't know. If I am, though, I'm more culturally insensitive than most. Much of my job entails encouraging speakers of foreign languages to use English. I regularly restrict not only terms deemed socially unacceptable, but also entire languages. I don't know about you, but if I go to another country, I learn the language as best I can and use it. That's something I constantly and actively encourage in my students.

Sleeping is something else entirely. It's almost always a symptom of something occurring outside of the classroom. I've had students whose families would wake them at three AM to help them deliver newspapers. I've had others who worked in family businesses from the moment they left school until who knows when. Some will stay up until 4 AM playing Call of Duty on the X Box. There are a whole lot of reasons for this phenomenon, and my lessons, however mundane or tedious they may be, are unlikely to be among them.

There's one vital factor the blogger failed to consider, and that is self-preservation. I've read my share of observation reports, and I've seen notes about students sleeping and wearing hats. I've seen teachers get letters in file for using unacceptable language, and I wouldn't suggest that you be the teacher who lets it get past you while getting observed. I don't know exactly where the line is on preserving decorum and being a microagressor, but I'll advise my members to stay out of trouble whenever possible.

I wonder whether the author's arguments would be better addressed to administrators. We sometimes get a say in the rules, but certainly not always. There are some things against which I'd take a principled stand, like failure to enforce class size. There are rules I'll challenge formally. The rules discussed in this blog are not among those I'd put myself on the line for. Sleeping in class is especially troubling to me. If I were to tolerate it from some, others would get the message it was OK, and my class could rapidly become naptime. That's not what I come to work for.

What do you think? Are you microagressive? Am I? What are we going to do about it?
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